Righting A Historic Wrong
Nirmal Ghosh on the dioxin cleanup in Da Nang, Vietnam
Bangkok - War is not just brutal, violent and tragic. It is also a disaster of multiple magnitudes, spanning human rights, public health, and environment. And of course it is entirely man made.
This Thursday Aug 9, the first step towards cleaning up the public health and environmental residue of a particularly odious chapter in warfare, will take place at Da Nang airport in Vietnam.
In 1969, newspapers in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – ran pictures of babies born deformed because of chemical warfare. The papers were closed down for ‘’interfering with the war effort.’’
In 1970, photographer Philip Jones Griffiths began hearing stories of babies being born without eyes. I have his seminal book ‘’Agent Orange : ‘Collateral Damage’ in Viet Nam’’ on my desk as I write this.
It is a stomach turning chronicle of the results of the defoliant Agent Orange deployed by the US in the war in Vietnam. It is so depressing, that I often do not want to even open this book, which was signed for me by Philip Jones Griffiths when he spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand some years ago. He passed away from cancer on March 19, 2008.
The damage wrought by Agent Orange was not just immediate and devastating; it has lingered for years. The defoliant itself broke down, but when it did, it released dioxins - powerful poisonous chemicals – that remain in the soil at and around US bases in Vietnam.
Da Nang this Thursday, will see the first step towards cleaning up.
‘’It has been 37 years since the end of the war, and we are only now beginning to address this in practical terms’’ said Charles Bailey, New York-based director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program of the Aspen Institute, who passed through Bangkok last week on his way to Da Nang.
Mr Bailey has been working doggedly at the programme for years. Comprehensive details are available at the Aspen Institute’s website http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/agent-orange.
It is a fascinating story of science, politics and war. When the planes that carried Agent Orange and sprayed it on the countryside returned to base they would be washed down by US Air force personnel. The defoliant seeped into the topsoil, leaving it loaded with dioxin. The effort to find the dioxin ‘’hot spots’’ took years of surveying and poring over old archives and maps to identify where the defoliant had been stocked and deployed. Eventually the target areas were refined to 28.
At Da Nang airport, dioxin in the soil was found to be 350 times the maximum allowed under United Nations and US government regulations. In the pathway of the dioxin are fields, and duck and fish ponds. The dioxin level in one fisherman was found to be 1,150 parts per trillion. the safe limit is 7-8 parts per trillion.
Persistent levels of dioxin can reduce life expectancy and affect children. ‘’Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer’’ says the World Health Organisation.
After the war ended, Vietnam and the US did not have diplomatic relations for some 20 years. It was only in 2006 that dioxins got on the official bilateral agenda. There was finally an understanding, Mr Bailey recalls, that it would help improve bilateral relations if the US helped to clear up the dioxin – something that was beyond the capability of Vietnam.
‘’Dialogue got started in 2007. This was citizen diplomacy’’ says Mr Bailey.
‘’It was agreed that the best way forward was not to argue over the past. We had to transcend the issue of casualties and look to the future, because this is a humanitarian issue.’’
In 2010, the US committed to spending US$30m over 10 years to clean up dioxins in Vietnam. That has now been recalculated at US$450m. The US has put in around US$60m so far – out of US$91m the rest of which has come from donors. Around 2/3 of this has gone towards the cleanup, and some to people left with disabilities.
There are three stages to the cleanup at Da Nang – soon to be followed by other sites. The first is to measure ethe levels of dioxin – which has been done. The second is to contain it so that trhere is no further leakage. This was funded by the ford Foundation and completed in 2008. It included food safety messages to the surrounding communities.
The third stage of the US$43m Da Nang cleanup will get under way in earnest on Thursday. It will take up to three and a half years; the amount of soil to be processed is huge.
"Americans learn at an early age to clean up their mess; we now have such an opportunity in Vietnam," said Mr Bailey. "This is good for Vietnam, good for us and good to get it behind us."